Born Survivors, Wendy Holden

They say a picture tells a thousand words. So here’s a picture:

mauthausen_babies-v2

And here are some words… Meet Eva, Mark and Hana. Three people who share a remarkable story. They were all born in the darkest hours of history, destined for death, toward the end of World War II.  They are now “siblings of the heart”, bound forever by the miracle of their survival.

Eva Clarke’s mother, Anka was from Czechoslovakia. She survived three years in the Terezin ghetto outside of Prague and was then transported, while pregnant with Eva, to Birkenau. She stood before Mengele, denying her pregnancy and trying to hide her naked body with her bare hands. In another life she had been a law student, “strikingly beautiful and fluent in German, French and English with a smattering of Spanish, Italian and Russian”, she had loved classical music and the cinema. She had been an avid reader, a talented swimmer and “as happy as a lark”. Anka was ultimately sent to work in an armaments factory near Dresden and from there to Mauthausen concentration camp by train. She went into labour on the cart on the way to the camp and delivered baby Eva weighing 1.5kg. Following the war, Anka married and with her new husband raised Eva. She died in 2013.

Mark Olsky was born in an opal coal wagon that was transporting Jews to Mauthausen. His mother, Rachel, was from Poland and was the eldest of nine children. In 1937 Rachel married Monik Friedman, a wealthy factory owner. Rachel was involved in charity work and fundraising and when the ghetto was established she worked to organise relief for those less fortunate than herself and Monik. She was one of the last to leave the ghetto in Lodz in 1944 where she lived with her three sisters. She died in February 2003.

48-hana-and-priska-in-1949_credit-hana-berger-moranHana Berger Moran came into the world on April 12, 1945 on a plank on the factory floor in Freiberg, outside of Dresden. In October 1944, Priska, Hana’s mother, similarly stood before Mengele and hid her pregnancy from his “forensic fascination”. She “had no idea if telling the truth might save her or condemn her and her child to an unknown fate. But she knew she was in the presence of danger.” Growing up, Priska “won numerous academic awards” and was “highly regarded”. Priska married Tibor in 1941 and together they moved to an apartment where they lived happily. In the midst of round ups and chaos, Priska miscarried her first child. As life became more difficult, she and Tibor grieved for what they had lost. Priska would miscarry twice more before falling pregnant with Hana, the baby that she would keep and raise alone. Priska died, aged 90, in 2006.

Wendy Holden has assumed a mammoth and burdensome task in compiling this story of three young mothers who survived against all odds. This is not an easy story to tell, but Holden has managed to craft each narrative as an individual strand in a broader story and each is filled with a sensitive tension that makes it unique and powerful. At times I found the narrative structure difficult to follow, but the story itself is so powerful that it didn’t impact my reverie in reading this book.

I commend Wendy Holden and I am in awe of these three women who survived such hardship, of their courage and determination and their sheer will to create lives for their children. I wish we all had this strength.

This is not an easy book to read but you won’t be disappointed and it certainly is an important one.

To make it even more valuable, you can be one of the privileged individuals to hear Eva Clarke speak at an inspirational event to be held by the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival at Waverley Library on April 8th at 2pm. This event has limited seating so tickets are necessary.

The Landing, Susan Johnson

download (1)Gosh I loved this book. It’s subtle and witty and sad and beautiful all at the same time. It is not one of those books that will bowl you over with its brilliance or drown you in wonder. It is simply a lovely telling of the lives that people lead and the relationships they share and it is this that makes it a delight to read.

Johnson’s characters are fraught and wonderful and real. They are each stricken with very believable lives which seem to torment them – Jonathan whose wife Sarah has left him for a woman; Penny whose daughter, Scarlett, ran off with a man old enough to be her father; Marie, Penny’s mother, a crotchety old woman who drives Penny mad. And all of these people come together at The Landing; an idyllic place in Queensland that is pristine and far removed from the pressures of work and life. It’s a space outside of time.

There are many wonderful moments in this book and some delightful allusions – “If a separated man – about to be divorced – is in possession of a good fortune, must he be in want of a new wife?” – harking back to Pride and Prejudice. Like Austen, Johnson is preoccupied with the “minutiae of her characters’ lives” and it is this that makes the book so  readable.

I Am Pilgrim, Terry Hayes

downloadThis book was one of those books that everyone raved about – a must read! A great thriller! Super exciting! The New York Times describes it thus: “the most exciting desert island read of the season”- and I can’t disagree. It certainly runs at quite a pace, rushing through countries and crises, racing over plains of intrigue and deception, bursting across borders and governments. Hayes has managed to cram so much into this tome that it is exhausting to read. But, read it I did and I have to confess that I rather enjoyed it.

There are aspects of this book which are superior – the pace is constant and the characters are diverse enough to be captivating and complex. Nonetheless, what I was left with in the wake of completing I Am Pilgrim was the sense that Hayes had attempted to cover too much ground in this book which starts with a crime scene in New York and then rapidly traverses the globe only to sneakily tie in the original crime scene at a later point in the telling. I found myself thinking that perhaps Hayes was trying too hard and that parts of the narrative could be edited or left out altogether. I Am Pilgrim reads like a crime thriller trying to be something more which is admirable but I’m not sure it’s entirely necessary.

Nonetheless, a great read and I expect it will make a fantastic film!

The Lost Swimmer, Ann Turner

the-lost-swimmer-9781925030860_lgThis was one of those books that doesn’t fit neatly into a specific genre. It was part love story, part thriller, and part vague foray into the wind swept Australia coast. While the characters didn’t grab me, I was definitely captivated by the landscape and the ‘Australian-ness’ of things … this was a solid element of the narrative from the novel’s opening:

“The sand was washed clean today,stretching wide at low tide. I ran along the glistening shore thinking of something I’d read last night: that you could travel a thousand miles and never notice anything. I suspected that this was as false now as when it was written by a Greek philosopher in the 5th century BC. Surely powers of observation would eventually take hold?”

More fascinating was the certain savagery that lay beneath the fine ebb and flow of this narrative. The story of the lost swimmer was one example of this, but more intriguing is the violent incident between the protagonist’s dog, Big Boy, and a resident kangaroo called Bonnie. I found myself captivated by this violence, unsure of its metaphorical significance. It’s worth citing part of this incident just to illustrate the dramatic nature of the exchange.

Without warning, Big Boy came racing through the thickening gloom and went straight for the kangaroos. In one swift movement he snapped the joey between his massive jaws. Instinctively Bonnie whipped back on her tail and struck Big Boy with her powerful hind legs. Big Boy leaped away, not taking the full force, but refusing to let go of the joey, who was emitting a thin, high-pitched squeal. Bonnie attacked again, boxing forward and scratching deeply with needle-sharp front claws. Big Boy buckled, yelping in pain, momentarily releasing the joey. Blood flowed everywhere, a dark gelatinous river emanating from the joey mingling with the brighter blood of the injured dog, who now, ignoring pain and reason, attacked the joey again, plucking him up and running away.”

What ensues is devastating and raw and extremely confronting and I can only think that Turner is trying to create some sort of metaphorical parallel between the personal tragedy about to afflict her protagonist and this incident.

In short, an interesting example of good quality Australian fiction.

Jessie Mei Mei, Sharon Guest & Stuart Neal

download (2)I don’t know much about the world of adoption. I was blessed with children. I never knew the pain of barrenness.

The story of Jessie Mei Mei is an important one. It’s a story that uncovers so much tragedy on so many different levels – the tragedy of these parents who can’t conceive, the tragedy of children abandoned, often because their parents have no choice, the tragedy of a flawed system for parents who bring home children like Jessie Mei Mei.

I am in awe of Sharon Guest and Stuart Neal. Their book so clearly conveys their commitment to their children and to all the children who are so clearly under-represented. I commend them for their tenacity and their ongoing and unyielding love for Jessie Mei Mei, despite their inability to care for her full time. At the same time, there is a resonance of deep sadness that filters through this book and while I am humbled by Guest and Neal, I can’t help feeling a terrible sorrow for this child and all children who suffer her fate.

We have so much to learn about ourselves and others and I am eternally grateful for all the blessings in my life.

Jessie Mei Mei is a story that needed telling and Guest and Neal have told it well.

Great Expectations, Charles Dickens

760096_origDickens never ages. In spectacular fashion, his fiction is timeless and stellar. It’s been a while since I indulged in Dickensian splendour but none of its glory had faded and I delighted in every moment of the language and colour of this awesome tale.

“Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlaying our hard hearts. I was better after I had cried than before, – more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle.”

Great Expectations is filled with these types of divine insights. About weakness:

“So, throughout life, our worst weaknesses and meannesses are usually committed for the sake of the people whom we most despise.”

About love:

“I’ll tell you,” said she, in the same hurried passionate whisper, “what real love is. It is blind devotion, unquestioning self-humiliation, utter submission, trust and belief against yourself and against the whole world, giving up your whole heart and soul to the smitter – as I did!”

And about expectations:

“As I had grown accustomed to my expectations, I had insensibly begun to notice their effect upon myself and those around me. Their influence on my own character I disguised from my recognition as much as possible, but I knew very well that it was not all good.”

It is this exploration of man’s essence that classifies Dickens as one of the great canonical writers of our world, his ability to flesh out characters, expose them and toy with the readers’ own sensibilities through his story-telling that defines him as brilliant.

I had forgotten so much about Dickens’ magic, and revisiting Great Expectations has brought some of this back to me. Not sure which Dickens I will be revelling in next, but whatever it is, I know I won’t be disappointed!

 

 

The Slave, Isaac Bashevis Singer

download (1)It is very hard to write about this book because it is quite simply one of the most brilliant books that I have ever read.

I have had the pleasure of reading Singer’s work before but I have never experienced the depth and complexity of a book like this.

This novel tells the story of a Jewish man called Jacob who finds himself sold into slavery in the aftermath of the Khmelnytsky massacres. Jacob, a devoutly religious Jew, spends years isolated on a mountain, working for pagan peasant farmers. Every day the farmer’s daughter, Wanda, climbs the mountain with food for Jacob who despite his slavery, attempts to maintain his religious observance, abstaining from meat, maintaining a calendar so he knows when Jewish festivals occur and trying to sustain himself by reciting from memory Jewish texts. Over time, Jacob finds himself falling in love with Wanda and despite his ongoing efforts to resist her, he eventually succumbs.

Wanda takes on Jacob’s Jewish conviction, immersing herself in the river as a type of ritual cleansing (called a mikveh). She covers her hair and dons the dress of religious Jewish women. Together they find a village in which to live, Wanda adopting the name Sarah and pretending to be a deaf mute so as not to arouse suspicion about her inability to speak Yiddish.

Despite all that Jacob and Wanda/Sarah have endured in their struggle to survive, they are plagued by the gossip of the village – Wanda’s pretence of deafness leads the women of the village to talk about her in her presence, to mock her and defame her, to  ridicule her and make snide comments about her, all the while thinking that she can’t understand them.

Jacob’s experiences with his wife both privately in teaching her about Judaism and in the village where they live, lead him to raise profound questions about his belief and the power of free will.

“But now at least he understood his religion: its essence was the relation between man and his fellows. Man’s obligations toward God were easy to perform. Didn’t Gershon have two kitchens, one for milk, and one for meat? Men like Gershon cheated, but they ate matzoth prepared according to the strictest requirements. They slandered their fellow men, but demanded meat doubly kosher. They envied, fought, hated their fellow Jews yet still put on a second pair of phylacteries. Rather than troubling himself to induce a Jew to eat pork or kindle a fire on the Sabbath, Satan did easier and more important work, advocating those sins deeply rooted in human nature.”

There is so much more to this text. It is filled with internal dialogue, with profound questioning and deep emotions. It explores the most complex passages of man’s conviction as he struggles to maintain a balance between his own desires and how he believes the world should be. I have never read a journey like this and there are elements of this book that will stay with me forever.

Furthermore, this is a book to which I will need to return time and time again in order to ensure that I digest all its complexity and beauty, and to not miss a drop of its essence.

Isaac Bashevis Singer is a clear genius and this, his only self-translated work, defines him as one of the greatest writers ever to have lived.

To read more of Singer’s brilliance, don’t miss his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

When Life Gives You OJ, Erica S. Perl

downloadSo I read this series backward – Aces Wild first and then When Life Gives You OJ and I am thrilled to announce that it made absolutely no different at all to the way that I enjoyed the reading experience!

Erica Perl is a genius. She has crafted a most delightful story around a group of incredibly realistic and lively characters. On the surface, this book is about Zelda’s desire to have a dog – perfectly depicted in this book trailer. It’s a great story – Zelly’s quest to convince her parents that she is mature enough, responsible enough, caring enough to have a dog is bolstered by her grandfather’s legal brain.

But, what lies beneath this quirky and often ridiculous tale, is a beautiful sense of empathy and connectedness that characterises Zelly’s family and is a sort of icon to the eternal value of Jewish emphasis on family and community.

I fell in love with Zelly’s grandfather all over again in this book – Ace is cranky and brilliant and sad and ever so caring about his family, specifically Zelly. He is clearly a treasure chest of stories waiting to be told and I can easily imagine myself sitting by his side and listening for hours as he waxes on about his life and his experiences and his infinite wisdom.

“Even without his name on it, I would’ve known this was Ace’s work. The rubber band was a dead giveaway. Ace is the proud owner of the world’s largest rubber band collection. He doesn’t trust Scotch tape.

Ready for what? I thought. I sat up in bed, staring at the jug. If Ace was behind this, I was definitely not ready for it.

Ace is grandpa. His real name is Abraham Diamond, but he likes everyone to call him Ace. My name is Zelda Fried, but I like everyone to call me Zelly. Ace doesn’t call me Zelly, or even Zelda. He calls me ‘kid’, so I call him Grandpa to get him back.”

The banter between these characters is delightful and refreshing and I found myself intrigued by their honesty and the depth of their connection.

Truthfully, I think what I liked most about this book was the humour and insane quirkiness of the narrative.

“I knocked quietly on Ace’s door. No reply. The sign hanging on his door says GONE FISHING, but it’s just for decoration. I don’t think Ace has gone fishing once since we moved to Vermont and Ace moved in with us. GONE TO HENRY’S DINER or GONE TO BEN & JERRY’S or GONE TO BATTERY PARK TO A BAND-SHELL CONCERT WEARING MY LUCKY FISHING HAT? Yes, yes, and yes. But GONE FISHING, not so much.”

It’s hard not to laugh and laugh I did.

If you have young readers in the pre-teen age group or if you are simply young at heart, this is a great book for you to read. I promise it will make you smile!

Aces Wild, Erica S. Perl

41ZMzOF3saLThis is a title from PJ Our Way, the pilot program for kids aged 9-11, run by PJ Library. I was given this title at a conference and it sat on my desk for almost a year before I started reading it. I’m not quite sure why this happened… I think it was buried under some paperwork and neglected and it was only when I was doing my annual clean up that I noticed it and took the time to actually pay it attention.

There is so much to love about this book – even if you don’t read the first in the series – When Life Gives you O.J. – although, I expect that once you read Aces Wild, you’ll be hooked and will have to read the back-story!

Meet Ace – Ace, the Grandpa, and Ace, the dog. Meet Zelly, short for Zelda, the new girl in town, struggling to find her space in the world of teenage girls, to balance her Jewishness with her need to be accepted and to deal with her interesting family – specifically Grandpa Ace.

Grandpa Ace was the stand-out character for me in this book. He speaks mostly in capital letters, English interspersed with large smatterings of Yiddish.

” I USED YIDDISH TO MAKE A POINT,” he announced. “TO A DOG, ENGLISH, YIDDISH – IT’S ALL THE SAME. IT’S GIBBERISH!”

He was a judge and his advice is filled with legal terminology and endless amounts of wit. He is filled with the kind of wit that only a Grandpa can have and he made me smile.

“Forget it,” I said. “Let’s go.”

“PUT YOURSELF IN HIS SHOES, KID.”

“He doesn’t have shoes. He’s a dog.”

“I GOT NEWS FOR YOU, KID. EVERYBODY HAS SHOES.” Ace stood, hitched his pants up over his belly, and led the way outside.

He is also recently widowed and he regularly makes trips to the golf-course where he feels he can commune with Grandma, AKA Bubbles.

Of course, the bulk of the obvious humour in this book comes from the fact that both Grandpa and the dog have the same name, and both appear to be equally untrainable –

“Ace-the-dog or Ace-the-grandpa?” asked my dad in a way that made it clear he was only half kidding.

and

“He’s Ace,” I said. “I’m Zelly. I’m the one who’s doing the class. It’s my dog.”

“Okay, what’s your puppy’s name?”

“Ace,” I said quietly.

“Sorry, I can’t hear you,” said Mrs Wright….

I sighed. “Ace,” I said, louder.

Mrs Wright looked confused. ” I thought you said he was Ace?” she said, pointing her pen at Ace.

“He is. They both are,” I told her. “It’s a long story,” I added.

I won’t destroy the story by revealing more as part of the beauty of this book is, in fact, the story itself. What I will say is that as far as young adult fiction goes, this book hits the mark for me. I think it will have huge appeal for a wide range of young readers and I can’t wait to try it out on my kids!

John Boyne, The Boy At The Top of the Mountain

Boy2-150x229I am a huge John Boyne fan and not because he wrote ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ which I did read and enjoy. I’m a fan because of the diversity of his writing. I love that he can write in so many different genres, that his young adult fiction is as good as his adult fiction, and I love the depths of his vast imagination.

This book was no exception.

And I’m not even sure how to write about it. I found it incredibly confronting and realistic and immense in its implications. Boyne has crafted something really masterful here that is going to take me some time to digest. Through his tale about young Pierrot, Boyne navigates his way through the complicity of German nationals, through the destruction of innocence and the enduring power of true friendships. He presents such a terrifying depiction of Hitler and his world that I found myself wondering about the extent of his research.

I read this book having in mind that I wanted my children to read it, but in hindsight I’m not sure that they are equipped to deal with the moral depths to which it plunges and I’m not sure that I am equipped to answer their questions about the choices that Pierrot makes and the repercussions of those choices.